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Time and Fevers

By Nova
Page 2 of 5

They led me through a maze of corridors, giggling like schoolgirls. Dayna keyed the codes into a series of three herculaneum-bound security doors. While she eased the third door open, Soolin stepped back and grinned up at me.

'You're on your own now,' she said. 'Good luck, Blake.'

She settled a small hand between my shoulder blades and shoved. As I stumbled over the threshold, my eyes flicked from side to side, automatically taking an inventory of the room. White walls, a black leather couch, a chiropractic machine, an elaborate sound system, a mosaic of vidscreens and data display units and a floor-to-ceiling window, opening onto a balcony. Avon was out on the balcony, gazing at a sky full of stars.

'Get out, Blake,' he said, without turning.

'Make me,' I replied.

Avon's shoulders lifted in a shrug, pleating the fine cotton of his black shirt. 'Since my chief executive officers clearly let you in, I don't like my chances,' he decided. 'Very well, if you insist on staying, you may as well make yourself useful. Fetch me a glass of Scotian whisky from the cabinet by the couch.'

I found a heavy tumbler - genuine glass, not plass - poured a generous measure and carried it across to Avon, lapping my hand over his to fold it round the tumbler. He flinched at the touch, disposed of the whisky in one long swallow and hurled the tumbler at the wall, where it exploded in a nova of diamond shards.

'Feeling better now?' I asked.

'Not noticeably,' he said. 'Would you mind explaining how you returned from the dead?'

'Oh, I was never dead,' I told him, propping an elbow on the balcony rail. 'As you presumably remember, shortly after you shot me, the Gauda Prime rebels rallied and held the Feds off for a few more hours. That gave my computer expert time to pack me into a cryogenic capsule, which he somehow transported halfway across the galaxy to Avalon's headquarters. Her surgeons repaired my body without too much difficulty but they couldn't do the same for my mind. Avalon decided I'd have more value as a martyr to the cause than a broken-down bounty hunter, so I changed my name and settled there with Deva.'

'Such loyal devotion,' Avon commented, still obstinately refusing to look in my direction, although I could see his hand flexing and clenching on the balcony rail. 'I hope you rewarded this Deva of yours suitably.'

'We were lovers for fifteen years,' I said brusquely. 'I don't know whether that counts as much of a reward.'

I gazed up at the stars, comparing their fierce blaze to the pale gleams in the polluted sky above Avalon's base. Beside me, Avon shifted suddenly, exposing the starry outline of his profile.

'Past tense?' he said with his usual acuity.

'Past tense,' I confirmed. 'He died six months ago. Heart failure, on a frontier planet with no facilities for organ replacement.'

Avon said, 'Ah,' and contemplated his hands for a while. The fine line between his eyebrows suggested that he was trying to remember what one was supposed to say on these occasions but, after a few minutes spent struggling with the inevitable grief and guilt, I decided not to wait.

'And you?' I asked and watched Avon's back straighten and stiffen.

'Oh, fifteen year relationships are hardly my style,' he said with a mocking lilt to his voice, although it wasn't clear whether he was mocking me or himself.

'I wouldn't know about that,' I said equably. 'As it happens, I was intending to ask how you survived Gauda Prime. According to Deva, you were sprawled across my body, bleeding from seven separate wounds. Since that was the last I heard of you, I naturally assumed ...'

Despite my best efforts, I found myself unable to complete the sentence. Avon frowned and averted his head, depriving me of the starry profile.

'When the Federation took the Gauda Prime base, my crew and I ended up in a military hospital,' he said finally. 'Luckily, I had access to a large sum of credits, in an account I established after Vila and I took an impromptu trip to Freedom City, and money can solve most problems. Most, but not all. Tarrant died from his wounds and Vila - well, Dayna and Soolin insist he died of a broken heart. However, I was able to purchase a reasonable standard of care and a place on the next outward bound cruiser for the girls and myself, which left us with enough capital to buy this planet and establish DasKapital Enterprises. Meanwhile, the military hospital informed Commissioner Sleer that we were dead. Since no one else in the galaxy seemed likely to care what had become of us ...'

His voice trailed away, just as mine had. He turned and looked directly at me, for the first time since I'd walked into his office. There were pouches under his eyes, deep lines etched beside his mouth and his brows feathered away more quizzically than before - although, somehow, all of that only served to focus my attention even more unerringly on those eyes and that mouth.

'Dr Jungfrau will be most displeased,' he said lightly. 'Fifteen years of intensive psychoanalysis, based on a false premise.'

'Because you didn't kill me?' I said. 'Let's drink to false premises, then.'

I went back inside for another pair of tumblers and glanced up to find Avon at my elbow. 'On reflection, Dr Jungfrau's analysis would still stand, if she knew you were alive,' he informed me.

'A guessing game, Avon?' I asked. 'Sorry, I'm not in the mood. Why don't you just spit it out?'

'After one whisky? You underestimate me, Blake.'

His hand inscribed a flourish on the air, then lifted to smooth the white stripe at his temple: the flamboyantly rueful mannerisms of an aging beauty. I could, I suppose, have derived a certain pleasure from observing the revenges that time had taken on him but as a matter of fact, I just felt ridiculously protective. To cover that irrelevant emotion, I filled both tumblers and sat down on the couch. Avon settled beside me and whisked the second tumbler out of my grasp, careful to avoid any physical contact, although either the whisky or a round of our old banter had relaxed him enough to let him meet my eyes more or less continuously.

'Tell me about your friend Deva,' he said, with his familiar knack for finding and probing my sore spots. 'It seems uncharacteristically obliging of you to have given him fifteen years of your life, when you are not sexually interested in men.'

I'd been wondering, off and on, about Soolin's theory but I'd almost discarded it by then. However, this was a fishing expedition, if I ever saw one. It was also a game two could play.

'Where did you get that idea?' I asked with a creditable imitation of surprise. 'If you'd ever listened to my speeches, you'd know the Freedom Party was fighting for the full range of freedoms. I've slept with a lot of men in my time - and a lot of women too, although on balance I prefer men.'

Avon hoisted his tumbler and took refuge behind its glassy screen. 'I see,' he said. 'Not an attitude that would have elicited much approval on Salem-6, where I grew up.'

'I didn't realise you were a Salemite,' I said, suppressing a grin. That explained a lot about Avon, Salemites being notorious for their combination of puritanism and perversity. 'Still, you've been away from Salem-6 for several decades now. I can't imagine that you've been celibate all this time, even if you aren't given to fifteen year relationships.'

I didn't really expect Avon to rise to such an obvious piece of bait, so I was surprised when he proceeded to empty his tumbler and reach for the bottle again. 'I slept with Cally once, a year after you left the Liberator,' he said, articulating the words with diamond-tipped precision. 'At that point, I decided I was fundamentally unsuited to heterosexual relationships. However, Dr Jungfrau is an overqualified pimp. Under her expert guidance, I investigated the queer bar scene, where I discovered that I am not averse to homosexual activity. On the other hand, I don't appear to be interested in either paid sex or sex with strangers, so I abandoned the effort and opted for celibacy.'

I slid my hand inside my shirt and surreptitiously massaged my midriff, as winded as if Avon had punched me in the solar plexus. For some unguessable reason, he'd chosen to impart more personal information in the last thirty seconds than in the entire two years we'd spent together on Liberator. How to react? I was tempted to say, 'All right, what's your position on having sex with men you used to know reasonably well?' but the direct approach rarely worked with Avon. I retrieved my hand and gnawed at a knuckle, thought fast and tried something more circuitous.

'Dr Jungfrau's false premise is starting to sound rather intriguing. What is it?'

Avon took another swig of the whisky and fixed me with an intent, resistant glare. 'It is none of your business, Blake,' he snarled.

He slung a casual arm across the back of the couch, then spoilt the effect by sliding down to cushion his cheek on his arm. I leaned forward, gripped his shoulder and shook it slightly.

'Don't be shy, Avon,' I said, ferociously cheerful. 'We're old ... friends, enemies, whatever you choose. You can tell me.'

'Dr Jungfrau is a neo-Freudian,' he said flatly. 'She believes that I shot you as a substitute for fucking you, and that I refrained from the latter course of action because -' He broke off and sketched another of his stagy gestures. 'Oh, I forget. Something to do with my parents, I suppose.'

He clearly intended me to be shocked but I grew up on Woodstock and nothing sexual ever shocked a Woodstocker. 'So you do have parents?' I said with a grin. 'I always wondered about that.'

'I am not a machine,' Avon slurred. 'Unfortunately.'

'Well, you've done your best,' I said, glancing round the room. 'You appear to be almost fully automated by now.'


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